W.: A Pop Theology Dialogue

We are trying something new here at Pop Theology.  I recently went to see W. with a few friends including Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay.  We immediately thought that a conversation about the film might be a great way to approach it rather than just a simple review.  As most everyone knows, Oliver Stone‘s W. focuses on George W. Bush’s rise to the White House and then the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.  While there is much to talk about here in terms of brilliant filmmaking from Stone and acting from Josh Brolin, Richard and I wanted to talk about some of the religious, spiritual, and theological implications of the film. Richard:  It was great to see W. with you last week. It sort of put an explanation point on this run-on sentence of an election season we have endured. Really, what will we do for entertainment when all the votes are cast and miscounted and it’s all over but the lawsuits? I am in awe of the cajones it took Oliver Stone to produce a biopic about a sitting president. He had to walk a fine line between farce and family drama, and seemed to do it well. I want as many negative histories of George W. Bush to come out right now as possible. Presidential legacies, even of blatant criminals like Nixon, tend to get burnished over time. The future must know how much this man is disliked, how the public perception is that he wrecked our country from stem to stern, foreign policy to economy, soup to nuts. He was the wrong man for the job at the worst possible time. So I’m glad a marginally insane leftist like Stone took the first shot.

What were your initial thoughts on the film?

Ryan:  Same here, especially anticipating the end of this interminable election.  I think you might agree that this film will have little if any impact on the election, as people who might vote for McCain in the upcoming election will most likely not go see this film, which is unfortunate, because I feel like Oliver Stone has given quite an even-handed account of Bush’s rise to the presidency.  My initial thoughts were shock and awe (forgive me) at how much I actually enjoyed the film.  I really felt like this was something with which both anti- and pro-Bush folk could connect.  For the former, you get all the dramatization of this administration’s decision to invade Iraq and for the latter, you have something of a morality tale of a misguided man hearing and responding to a Divine calling.  But along with that, I did feel frustrated when Stone would delve into and kind of hang around in the War Room with Rice, Rumsfeld, Chaney, Powell, Rove, et al. and veer away from the personal/family aspect of Bush’s rise to power.  For me, this was the most compelling aspect of the film.  A friend of mine who saw this said that it really is amazing how something as insular as a family squabble between a father and son has exploded into, really, a world crisis.  You think Shakespeare could have written this any better?  Personally, I blame Bud Selig.

Now, what I want to throw back to you, because I know you’re waiting on pins and needles for this one, is the religious/theological component to Bush’s story and the film.  While it will be easy to jump on Bush and his supporters for their “theocratic” leanings, I wonder if we can’t broaden the implications here for such thinking.  I felt like, in the film at least, Bush arrives at or hears this calling out of the blue, which, I am well aware, is where most folks hear God’s calling.  It seemed, in the film, like W. was conflating his conflict with “Poppy” with his own spiritual struggle, or that it was a symptom of that struggle.  Now to solve that by running for the leader of the free world, is quite problematic, to say the least.  In the film, his minister also seemed to express a moment of reservation before being rail-roaded by W.’s confidence.

Richard:  I like your point about the confusion between the spiritual and the family struggle. The most freighted statement Bush made about this was when he said he had consulted a “higher father” about Iraq, not the father who had actually already won a war against Saddam Hussein. I would suggest this confusion is pretty normal, as we tend to divinize our parents when we’re children, and part of the process of growing up as a person of faith is to separate them from God. The problem is when the unresolved issues of childhood go unexamined well into adulthood and get projected onto jobs and relationships. This president and the one before him had a maddening ability to drag the entire country through their personal psychodramas. (This is somehow fitting for our first two Boomer presidents.) I’m looking forward to having a president who has fought his personal demons before he gets into office, which I think we will get no matter who wins this election.

The scene after the church Bible study was the most moving of the film — the concrete block walls, the cheap stained glass, the Jesus prints on the wall — I’ve been to that church, and so have you. Where Oliver Stone gets it right is he takes Bush’s conversion seriously rather than treating it with the condescension of most secular commentators. Although I’ve never been an alcoholic womanizer, I could identify with where W. was in that scene — looking into the vast abyss of the universe and wondering if there was enough love there for someone like me.

Stone was just about to hit it out of the park when he had the minister character (played by Stacy Keach) make that comment about America being a nation of millions of born again Christians. No pastor worth his salt would make a political comment like that when someone was in the depths of personal despair. And, as you suggested, born again Christians, for all their talk of “taking back the nation” really believe themselves to be a part of a Kingdom not of this world.

Incidentally, did you even know that was Stacy Keach? He’s aging hard.

I wonder what you think about the idea that Bush felt “called” to the presidency. Does anyone get “called” to the presidency?

Ryan:  Good call on Stacy Keach.  I wonder how Stacy Keach as Luther would have interacted with Bush in that moment.  I totally agree about the scene at the church and the sincerity with which Stone approached that moment in W.’s life.  The minister’s statement about the nation of millions of born again Christians is fascinating in a way.  You have evangelical Christians who want to take back a nation that theologically and spiritually is not their home.  It’s almost like they want to take it back to trade up for the kingdom of God, a new world coming down from heaven to earth.  At the same time, you have more liberal Christians who believe that the Kingdom of God will not come from the top down but from the bottom up and that a certain reclamation or re-creation through human action on behalf of God.  It’s amazing how that one difference impacts evangelism, social justice, and politics.

Regarding W.’s assertion that God “called” him to the presidency is a difficult claim for me to buy into or critique.  I imagine that, like me, you grew up in an environment where people talked like that and were confident that God had told them a variety of things.  In college, I was surrounded by folks who swore that God held forth with them regarding their dating lives.  While I believe in God’s continual work in this world and God’s on-going revelation through a variety of avenues, this idea of “God spoke to me” is the stuff of either a genuine person of faith or a lunatic.  Perhaps the better question would be, how did W. respond to that calling?  I would imagine if he had taken different turns in his presidency, we might be more accepting of his claim.

I really thought that the scenes of W. in the empty baseball park were quite telling as well.  Whenever he faced a struggle or a conflict he would return to the baseball field in his mind as some sort of safe place.  On top of this, the imaginary crowd’s reaction changes as his situation worsens.  This, for me, might have been his true calling.  So, again, I blame Bud Selig.  Your thoughts?

Richard: The sad thing was I think he was happy as a baseball club owner. If only he had become commissioner. But then, considering his disdain for redistribution of wealth, I doubt we’d be any closer to a salary cap and league parity. Perhaps my beloved Reds will do better under an Obama administration.

Getting back to being called to be President, I don’t think it’s out of the question that God may have a preference as to who leads a country with massive wealth and ability to do harm or good. Looking back at the 1972 Nixon/McGovern election, I don’t think the country has ever had a starker choice between a decent, compassionate individual and a complete liar and crook. Politics aside, if you believe God prefers honesty over criminal duplicity, you have to think God wanted a different outcome. And the harm done to the nation by Nixon’s re-election would seem to confirm that.

What bothers me about Bush is that his election almost seemed too perfectly wrong. He was as unfit for the job as anyone we’ve ever had. He won because of a chain reaction of mistakes and coincidences unfathomable to the human mind. If Al Gore had won his home state, he would have been president. If you counted the “overvotes” from the infamous butterfly ballot of Palm Springs County, Gore would have had 5,000 extra votes. If 800 Nader voters had decided to cast their ballots for an actual winning candidate, it would have gone to Gore. On 9/11, Al Qaeda found the perfect dupe. Attacking an incurious, ill-informed President itching to prove his manhood after his father was criticized for not overthrowing Saddam, the terrorists succeeded in luring him into an apocalyptic battle on their terms. They knew they couldn’t destroy America on their own, but they knew with leadership that had the right combination of wounded pride and ignorant hubris, they could get America to dismantle itself. The last eight years have been like Providence in reverse.

Which leads me to wonder, have the last eight years still been Providential? Under the strict Calvinism that has been central to this country’s perception of itself, including the perception of the religious right, God is not a nice guy looking for the self-actualization of all people. There are elect and there are non-elect. There are people who act in favor of God’s righteousness and there are those who act in defiance of God, and are struck down to God’s greater glory. Under this view, it may be that God did choose George W. Bush, not because he was a great man, but because he was the perfect fool to  humble an arrogant nation and bring about a re-ordering of the world. The religious right needs to wake up to its own theology. In biblical accounts, when a nation falls, as we have over the last eight years, it’s seen as a sign of God’s disfavor — and not because they didn’t ban gay marriage, but because they failed to listen to the cries of the widow, the orphan, and the poor.

I’ve mostly rejected this kind of theology in my own mind, but what can I say, Bush brings out the Jonathan Edwards in me.

Ryan: I like how you move from the political to the theological, but in a way that not many of us are accustomed to hearing.  Well, maybe Jeremiah Wright brought out a little bit of that.  Many American Christians are quick to claim some sort of divine favor, but are not willing to think about or live with the idea of divine disfavor.  On the one hand, you have Christians (some) lining up behind Falwell et al when they claim Katrina is punishment for the gays.  But let one minister criticize public policy and you have a nation-wide controversy on your hands.

We could go on and on about this film, but I think we both agree that, like most Oliver Stone films, it is thought provoking to a great degree.  Unlike most Oliver Stone films, it certainly is much less heavy-handed in its approach to the subject matter.